No easy fix for declining cattle herds

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Cattle farmers from across the province and Canada gathered at Manitoba Ag Ex last week, but despite the healthy number of attendees, the slow decline of the industry was at the forefront of many producers’ minds, Bill Campbell says.

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Cattle farmers from across the province and Canada gathered at Manitoba Ag Ex last week, but despite the healthy number of attendees, the slow decline of the industry was at the forefront of many producers’ minds, Bill Campbell says.

The reasons why the industry is suffering, and the solutions that could help it, are not so simple, said Campbell, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers.

“It’s certainly a very complex issue … this is not an overnight sensation.”

Kelsey McKenzie adjusts the restraints for a Speckle Park cow at the Manitoba Ag Ex on Oct. 27. Manitoba's cattle industry has been in decline for many years now, and there are no easy solutions, stakeholders say. (Ian Hitchen/The Brandon Sun)

Manitoba accounted for nine per cent of Canada’s beef farms in 2021, down from 10.7 per cent in 2016. As of July 2021, there were 1.07 million head of cattle on farms. This number has been steadily declining every year since 2007.

While factors like frequent dry conditions have contributed to the decline, many producers and agricultural organizations say the current exodus of beef herds in Manitoba has been decades in the making.

The mad cow disease crisis of 2003 was the starting point for issues that are still felt in the industry to this day, Campbell said. Farm income that year had fallen to its lowest level in three years due in part to the crisis.

“We essentially lost a generation of expertise in the livestock industry,” Campbell said.

The decline that was seen during the crisis has repeated itself, though to a lesser extent, due to droughts in 2017, 2018 and 2019, Campbell said. Last year, Manitoba saw the worst drought since the 1980s.

And this past spring, frequent storms made calving season more difficult than usual, resulting in stock losses.

There are places in Manitoba where livestock production is the “primary economic return” and other places where producers operate mixed grain and cattle farms.

“What we’re seeing is a lot of times, it’s the mixed farmers that have struggled through some economic times,” he said. “[They’re] seeing that the returns that the livestock sector is providing them is not as lucrative as some of the crop production.”

Part of the solution to rebuilding the cattle industry in Manitoba, Campbell said, is to educate the public on how it benefits the environment. The sector has received a lot of flak for its contribution to methane emission levels, but some farms are pivoting to be more sustainable. The greenhouse footprint of Canadian beef production represents 2.4 per cent of Canada’s overall emissions, according to the Canadian Cattle Association.

Cattle are often raised on land that is unsuitable for producing grain or vegetable crops. Because they are ruminant animals with more than one stomach, cows can digest grass. The cattle association said that while cattle are raised for food, natural ecosystems and plant diversity are positively affected, since the rangelands and pastures that cattle feed on provide important wildlife habits and reduce soil erosion.

Pasture lands are home to many species of Canadian wildlife; 68 per cent of the wildlife habitat in the country is provided by land managed by beef production. Burrowing owls, swift foxes, greater prairie chickens, greater sage grouse, black-tailed prairie dogs and loggerhead shrikes are all at-risk species that prefer unbroken pastures as their habitat.

Two other things that would go a long way to aiding the struggling cattle sector would be to provide producers with more robust business risk-management tools and re-examine the province’s Agriculture Crown Lands program, said Matthew Atkinson, vice-president of Manitoba Beef Producers and a director of the Canadian Cattle Association.

Current business risk-management tools available to the livestock industry aren’t as helpful as those in the grain sector, he said.

“We have some price insurance programs out there to insulate us … but we’re working hard to try and get a cost-shared premium on those programs so that they’re as competitive as we see with crop insurance.”

Bringing livestock insurance programs up to the same level as those in grain would help speed up the recovery time in a drought or flood year, Atkinson said.

“Every time we get that bad year, whether it’s BSE, whether it’s supply-chain backups, when you don’t have a business risk-management tool to insulate you from that somewhat, you’re three, four or five years recovering from it. And then it seems like you get that next bad year again, so there’s just never that opportunity to get ahead.”

This could include the employment of Crown lands, which can be leased for grazing, haying or annual cropping, depending on the authorized use and capability of the land.

But in 2019, the Manitoba government introduced new regulations for the Crown lands system, including a new market-based rental formula, auction systems for deciding who gets to lease the land and shorter, 15-year lease lengths. These changes have hit cattle producers hard in some cases, Atkinson said.

“It’s not a sustainable pricing model, and we need that brought back to a reasonable level,” he said. “I’m not saying the level and prices are going to change … but we need that brought back in check a little bit.”

In response to the dry conditions and excessive moisture over the last few years, the province implemented a rent reduction program on Crown lands. It will provide farmers with up to $4 million in relief, said Ross Romaniuk, press secretary for provincial Agriculture Minister Derek Johnson.

The program will be in place for the next three years, with a 50 per cent reduction in 2023, 33 per cent in 2024, and 15 per cent in 2025. The reductions will be applied automatically.

“Manitoba Agriculture is exploring other possible improvements to the Agriculture Crown Lands Program to enhance productivity and sustainability,” Romaniuk said.

In August 2021, the province instituted a livestock feed and transportation drought assistance program for beef, dairy, sheep and other livestock producers. Around $62 million was earmarked to buy and transport feed, to move livestock and to rebuild herds. The federal government contributed $93 million for a total commitment of $155 million. Cattle producers were eligible for up to $262 per cow for purchased feed assistance and support for the additional costs of transporting feed.

Producers who were forced to sell breeding animals last year and replace them this year with purchased or retained breeding females are also eligible to receive $250 per female animal replaced, Romaniuk said. To date, the province has paid out more than $85 million to livestock producers through the program.

Manitoba Agriculture Services Corporation supported producers who used their forage insurance products, with the select hay, basic hay and hay disaster benefit providing more than $36 million to insured producers.

“These are very significant indemnities, and we hope we will see an increase in participation,” Romaniuk said.

The compensation rate under AgriStability, a business risk-management program operating under the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, will be moved up to 80 per cent from 70 per cent starting in the 2023 program year, he added.

Despite the continued decline in cattle herds across the province, there is reason to be optimistic this fall thanks to the reprieve of warmer-than-usual temperatures, Atkinson said.

“I’m hoping I still have cows out grazing for another three weeks or so, which is a big change and a big step forward from the last few years.”

» mleybourne@brandonsun.com

» Twitter: @miraleybourne

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